Sister Helen Prejean and the Fight Against Capital Punishment

August 3, 2017

I grew up on an “eye for an eye” doctrine, and really believed that the death penalty was just. Luckily, I had to write a paper on capital punishment during college, and what started out as a “pro” paper ended up as a “con” paper. Even though I am considered a heretic by some in the Christian community for this stance, I’ve stuck with it now for nearly two decades.

I read Sister Helen Prejean’s book, Dead Man Walking, with interest, because I follow her on Twitter and I wanted to read more about her work. After only a chapter or so, I wanted to become a nun – of course that’s impossible, since I’m a Methodist and married. 🙂 But, she really is that inspiring.

First of all, the book is very different from the movie, in that the movie focuses on only one of Sister Prejean’s relationships with one death-row inmate. The book focuses on how she got her start, and then details 2 such friendships, plus the relationship that politics plays into all of this (and it is much more unflattering than even I would have imagined).

Sister Helen got her start in this work when she was asked to be a pen-pal to a man living on death row. That spiraled into a friendship, which then led to her work as a “spiritual adviser” for that man, and then to others after him. I can’t imagine working among the absolute worst of the worst, and continuing to view these men with compassion and love, but that’s exactly what she did (and does). Sister Helen insists that killing someone to make them pay for what they have done is pointless, and she is right. How much more good can these men (and women) do when presented with work opportunities behind the prison walls? What good can it possibly do to resort to additional violence?

What is really quite shocking is the politics behind the scenes. I already knew that African-Americans are put to death in this country at a far greater rate than white Americans, but I never knew that crimes are prosecuted at a higher rate for white victims than black. What kind of a world makes it okay to insist on the death penalty and to vigorously fight for the victims when the victim is white, but not if the victim is black? It’s appalling. It’s also completely appalling how “they” decide who lives or dies. Pardon Boards, governors, wardens, guards……they are all just “doing their jobs” and giving the “American people what they want.” It certainly isn’t what this American wants. Getting “justice” by killing someone is never right, and it is peculiar that so many Christians think it’s absolutely okay. As a matter of fact, just about every Christian I know personally can quote every verse about an “eye for an eye” but ignore absolutely everything Jesus had to say about turning the other cheek and forgiving people who have wronged you. (Sister Helen Prejean runs across this attitude a lot too!)

During Sister Helen’s experiences working in this ministry, she has learned the hard way to always seek out the victim’s families, no matter if they turn her down or not. Working with the families has led to a victim support group, and some interesting and wonderful friendships. What was really striking was the stepfather of one of the victims and his friendship with Helen. She is friendly with the family, to the point of going to their home for BBQs and family events. But, even after his stepdaughter’s killer was executed, he and his family attend every event they can to promote the quick and efficient use of the death penalty. It is obvious that watching the execution has brought him absolutely no peace. I would actually argue that it has made his rage worse – sister Helen points out that he no longer has anyone with which to direct his rage.

Sister Helen absolutely does not condone the crimes that these men have committed and she does not excuse their behavior. She does, however, work with them to provide guidance, friendship, and support. They do discuss God, but she is not heavy-handed. She also points out in the book that these men are often not guilty in the first place! (The two men discussed in this particular book were put to death, even though they claimed innocence of actually pulling the trigger and there is evidence that neither of them committed the crimes. They were absolutely not free from guilt at participating in the crimes, but they did not do the actual killing, so they shouldn’t have been on death-row in the first place.)

I believe that Sister Helen says it best in her book:

…we must persuade the American people that government killings are too costly for us, not only financially, but – more important – morally.

The death penalty costs too much. Allowing our government to kill its citizens compromises the deepest moral values upon which this country was conceived: the inviolable dignity of human persons.

I so admire the work of Sister Helen Prejean. Her view of Jesus as compassionate and loving will always resonate with me. I will continue to fight to abolish capital punishment in this country each and every day. I wish that there was more I could do.

Matthew 5:38-42 (NRSV): You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Serve all with love.

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